Are neighboring states making your state’s COVID-19 outbreak better or worse?

Published on
November 23, 2020

It is rare that you hear one governor criticize another. But the pandemic is one of those unprecedented times where people are saying things you never though you would hear.

As infections, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID-19 are spiking across the country, states have had a choice to make. More than 35 states have issued mandates requiring masks to be worn in public places.

Idaho is not among them.

As we know with this pandemic, what one country does can affect people all the way on the other side of the planet. So staying vigilant about what neighboring states are doing seems like a no-brainer.

Gov. Jay Inslee recently told reporters that one of the reasons that Washington’s hospitals are struggling to meet the handle the surge of COVID-19 patients is that Idaho’s citizens are exponentially increasing the risk of transmission simply by carrying on as if nothing is happening.

“I have urged the Idaho leaders to show some leadership,” Inslee said. “One of the reasons we have such jammed up hospitals in Spokane is because Idaho, frankly, has not done some of the things we’ve found successful.”

Spokane happens to be just to the west of the Idaho border. And most states have their own version of a Spokane. If Washington did not have a mask mandate but Idaho did, it would be the hospitals in Coeur d’Alene that would be suffering from Washington’s failures.

Reporters now have the opportunity during this winter surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations to ask the question: Is my state taking care of its patients or exporting the problem?

You can start with the biggest hospital systems in state border areas. What are they seeing? Where are patients coming from and how does that compare to normal times?

You can talk with ambulance services, too. Are they bringing patients across the border with more frequency now or less?

Call hospital systems and ambulance services on the other side of your border. If you are in Kansas City, Missouri, where they don’t have a mask mandate, call up Kansas City, Kansas, where they do. It’s not just mask mandates. It’s other measures to reduce transmission: Restrictions on crowd sizes. Indoor versus outdoor dining. Encouraging people who can to work from home.

Missouri hospitals have had to export patients to Iowa, for example, when they have exceeded capacity. Hospitals in Missouri have been begging for the governor to issue a mask mandate. Steve Edwards, the CEO of the CoxHealth hospital system in Missouri, told a reporter that a rural hospital reached out to him trying to find a bed for a patient.

“We were scurrying to try to move some patients around when he called me back and said we committed the patient in Iowa,” Edwards told. “The way hospitals work, it’s possible that within an hour, a bed would’ve opened … but patients can’t always wait.” 

Those kinds of stories abound right now.

Go find them. Your audiences deserve to understand how policies in their states – or neighboring states – affect them, affect their hospital systems, and affect the surrounding communities. Over time, you can go back and look at the trends, too. You can also use some of your data skills to mine state hospitalization tallies for trends. How were your state’s hospitals able to handle the demand within your borders, and how much space was taken up by people from other states? What decisions were made or opportunities missed to protect people from COVID-19 in those states?

When I wrote for many years about the organ and tissue donor system, we used to regularly see reports about states that were net givers and states that were net receivers of organs. The idea was to encourage some of the states where people were less generous to pick up the pace. Donate! But the stakes are even higher during COVID-19, when more people have died in a single year than from so many other diseases combined.